You don't need training as a weather forecaster to recognize that an intense golden sun suspended in a field of deep blue translates into a dry day without a hint of rain. Not the type of summer day most bass anglers would choose to go smallmouth fishing on a clear water lake.
But that is exactly the type of weather that confronted another outdoor scribe and me during a morning of trolling the deeper waters of Oneida Lake in western New York with a professional walleye fisherman. The sun was directly overhead when we moved into a bay near the ramp to finish interviews.
While the other writer wrapped up his work with the guide, I stared into the transparent water, letting my eyes wander across the extensive shallow sand and cobble flat. Intermittent patches of dark moss-like grass broke up the light colored bottom.
I watched as a dark glob broke off from a larger patch and began moving across the sand.
Odd, I thought. The first glob was followed by a second, then another and another.
Suddenly my mind realized I was observing a pack of smallmouth bass.
My heart began pounding. I looked around the bow of the boat for something to throw to the fish but all the rods were rigged for trolling. I spied a spinning rod in the rack with a stickbait tied on.
The fish were lazily swimming away from our position at a slight angle, so I made a long (and not very accurate) cast to intercept the bass pack, which numbered more than a dozen fish. The lure splashed down hard. I feared the splash had spooked the smallies — until I saw at least four bass race toward the plug. They stopped about 3 feet short.
I gave the jerkbait one good rip and all hell broke loose. The first bass to reach it blew the lure out of the water, but another fish grabbed the bait as it touched down. The line went tight and I set the hook.
The hooked bass was in and out of the water several times, while other smallies attempted to take the bait away. As I worked the bass closer to the boat, the entire school followed.
"Get a rod! Hand me a net! Do something!" I shouted.
My boat partners thought I had gone mad — until they looked down and saw the fish advancing. Then they scrambled for rods, leaving me to unfurl the long-handled net and scoop the nearly 3-pound smallie over the high gunwale of the walleye boat.
The drifting boat continued an aimless course over the flat. Mayhem broke out as additional wolf packs of 2- to 3-pound smallmouth bass were observed moving about. Casts zinged in every direction as bass exploded on lures like artillery shells falling on a battlefield.
The other writer in the boat muttered, "Smallmouth this shallow in the middle of a sunny summer day — it's not natural."
Was this a fluke or an anticipated occurrence? That is the question I later asked two professional bass anglers from Northern states.
WHY THE FACTOR
"Clear water forces smallmouth deep in the summer — that is a myth!" states Frank Scalish, a BASS pro from Ohio.
"When I began expanding my fishing to other waters in order to prepare for the national Tournament Trail several years back, one of the things that struck me was how northern natural grass lakes with a smallmouth population get this incredible shallow water bite in the summer," continues Scalish. "That's not something I was accustomed to on dirty water Ohio impoundments and Southern reservoirs."
Pro angler Jordan Paullo of Connecticut, who coincidentally finished near the top at the 2003 Bassmaster Open on Oneida Lake by focusing on shallow flats, expresses a similar view. "I have always been fascinated by the number of smallmouth bass that are found in 5 feet or less in clear water natural lakes. Not only schools of 2- to 3-pounders, but the larger loner fish, as well."
Known for deep water summertime haunts, why are these brown bass cruising the shallows? Paullo and Scalish answer in one word: "Prey."
"These smallies are not feeding on pelagic baitfish such as shad that roam the open water depths on Southern reservoirs," explains Scalish. "Instead, they are on the hunt for shoreline bait like spottail and fathead minnows, and small yellow perch."
"Perch and crawfish," adds Paullo. "These natural lake smallmouth love to eat yellow perch the size of an average threadfin shad or a little larger."
While clear water natural lakes exist throughout the country, the greatest concentration is within a wide belt extending through the New England states, Great Lakes states and into Minnesota. Most Northern natural lakes support a big population of yellow perch. Like most fish, perch school by year class, and the smaller ones roam the shallow flats that feature a mixture of sand, rock and weeds.
THE WHERE FACTOR
"For me, finding the perfect balance of weeds and rock in shallow water is key," explains Paullo, who hails from the New England area. "What I mean by the perfect combination is an area that is primarily a shale-type bottom with scattered boulders, that transitions into broken cobble or fine gravel, thereby allowing patches of weeds to grow.
"The better weeds are milfoil, coontail or cabbage. The vegetation needs to have openings —it can't be too thick. Imagine a weed maze on a hard rock bottom, and you have a pretty good idea of the areas I look for."
Paullo says other natural lakes have different scenarios on the flats — such as a hard spot, rock outcropping or shellbed that breaks up a large weedbed. Even though this is the opposite of the weed-patch-within-rocky-shallows, a rocky-spot-amid-weedbed yields the same result: a magnet for smallmouth.
"Regardless of which type of shallow flat, the crucial element is an ambush point — small but defined pieces of cover different from the surrounding bottom material that help to camouflage smallmouth," adds Paullo.
Although the water is clear and bass often are visible to the angler, Scalish and Paullo both agree this is not the time or place for a finesse approach.
"Forget the small baits and light line," says Scalish. "These fish are actively foraging, and are instinctively tuned in to chase behavior. This is all about power fishing."
The key is to cover water quickly. Choose lures that fish easily in the shallows while allowing you to keep moving. If you pull into an area, immediately catch a couple of bass and then hang out at the spot thinking you have a shallow water honey hole — forget it.
That group or school of bass has already moved.
Scalish usually starts out with a jerkbait — either a soft plastic version or a hard plug — looking for the reaction bite. He fishes both at a fast pace.
"I rely on Yum's Houdini Shad for the shallowest water. It's heavy enough to throw long distances with a baitcaster, comes through those mossy patches without getting slimed and hardly requires any water to work it. Sometimes I'll be fishing water less than 18 inches deep.
"The Bomber 15A is another of my go-to baits for the flats — the floating model, not the suspending model. The suspender would get stuck in the bottom as shallow as I sometimes fish on flats."
He fishes both jerkbaits on fluorocarbon. A proponent of fluoro, Scalish has said in the past he fishes it for properties other than its invisibility. "However, in this supershallow, clear water situation, I feel an invisible line is critical," he stresses.
Another reaction lure frequently found on Scalish's rods is a Cordell Spot. "This is an excellent search lure. Reel it as fast as possible. Hits are so ferocious that cork in the rod handle will squeal as brown bass try to pull it from your hands!"
STAYING ON TOP
For covering water on relatively calm days, Scalish goes to a Super Spook Jr. "Just tie on a Spook, put the trolling motor down and keep hauling across the flat while working the bait. You will eventually run into marauding smallmouth."
Paullo plays to the smallmouth's competitive nature with dual rigged soft jerkbaits. He starts with a three-way swivel tied directly to 20-pound main line. To the three-way, he attaches one soft stickbait on a 12-inch leader and another one on a 24-inch leader. The leader material is 17-pound test, and the hooks are XCalibur Tx3 light-wire wide gap.
Preferred bait colors are natural shad or pearl white. A 7-6 flipping stick allows him to make a two-handed swing cast, similar to throwing a Carolina rig.
But Paullo's first choice for covering flats is a spinnerbait. "Two reasons: long casts and fast presentation," he says. "Wind is a necessity to disguise the spinnerbait silhouette; otherwise you get a lot of followers but no takers. I use a 1/2-ounce Booyah Glow Blade in colors that most closely resemble perch: chartreuse skirt, chartreuse blade, perch skirt (chartreuse/orange/black)."
Are there absolute rules when it comes to selecting baits for the shallows? "Not really," says Scalish. "I rotate through the lures mentioned until I start catching bass. I'll stay with that bait until the bass stop eating it. Then I switch to something else. When shallow smallies are on, you will hook one and see six following it. When the followers stop, then it is time to switch lures or move on. This isn't a hole-sitting situation."
ARE SHALLOW SMALLMOUTH DEPENDABLE?
Few anglers will argue that catching skinny water smallmouth is more fun than hunting them in deep water. But are shallow water smallies reliable when it comes to tournament competition?
Frank Scalish acknowledges that smallmouth on shallow flats lead a "here today, gone tomorrow" nomadic lifestyle. They definitely don't hang around in any one spot very long, and it's a risk counting on them for multiple-day tournaments.
Scalish, who won the 2004 Bassmaster Open on Lake Erie with smallmouth in 40 feet of water, feels that deeper structure-oriented brown bass are generally more reliable— but he realizes that isn't always the case. He recalls a Bassmaster event on Lake St. Clair where he had found smallmouth on a big sandbar. But he abandoned the shallow fish, fearful they would move, and went to his deep fish. "My deep fish didn't bite. Davy Hite was fishing the shallow water pattern on the sandbar, too, stayed with it and ended up winning the tournament," notes Scalish.
At the Bassmaster event at Oneida Lake in 2003, Jordan Paullo stuck with shallow smallmouth while most competitors targeted structure in the 12- to 17-foot depths. "I focused on rockpiles, scattered grass patches and shellbeds in less than 4 feet of water. I caught more than 15 pounds of smallies the first day in less than 10 casts. The wind moved my fish around a bit the second day, but I still managed a fourth-place finish."